The writ will drop this week and the Ontario provincial election will officially be underway. Leaders’ debates are key events in any election campaign, perhaps no more so than this year in Ontario.
The “network consortium,” CBC, TVO, Global, CTV, CHCH, CPAC, will air their “official” consortium debate on May 27th. Coming as close as it does to election date on June 7th, it will undoubtedly attract widespread interest. Tomorrow evening, CityNews is offering a preview, beating the big boys to the punch.
MONDAY, MAY 7th, from 6 to 8 p.m., CityNews will host the first televised leaders debate between the three major candidates to become Ontario’s next premier. It will air commercial free on City TV, CityNews.ca, the CityNews Apps for iOS and Android, and the CityNews Facebook page. It will also feature on OMNI2 at 6 p.m. in Punjabi, and 10 p.m. in Mandarin.
The focus of this debate will be on issues of particular concern to the city of Toronto: policing, drugs, transit, education and real estate. The leaders have already chosen the order in which they will respond to six questions posed from the audience on these issues. Each will be able to ask one other question themselves.
Although organized with apparently little advance public notice, this first debate between the key leaders is a high stakes affair. The sponsor may be a minor player in the Canadian media scene but the computer and social media exposure means that the images created in this early debate will be readily available to a wider audience in the month ahead. And the focus on non-English-speaking voters is a healthy reminder of the changing nature of the Ontario electorate.
Several weeks ago, the Toronto Black Community organized a leaders’ debate in the city. Kathleen Wynne, Andrea Horwath and Green Party leader Mike Schreiner participated. Doug Ford did not; he said he was already occupied touring Ontario’s north country.
This time, Doug Ford will be debating, in the open, unprotected by his handlers, in a format where he has not shone in the past. The pressure will be on him to show if he has any real interest in, or knowledge about, policy issues and, equally important, whether he has the capacity to be “premiersorial” (as opposed to “presidential,” in the American context). Kathleen Wynne is an experienced debater who used the consortium leaders’ debate in the last provincial election to skewer Tim Hudak’s higher polls. Can she do it again? Can she reverse the prevailing polls, which presently predict a Tory majority? Andrea Horwath will be attempting to prove herself as an “alternative agent for change.”
Already, the nature of this debate, and that projected by the “consortium network” on May 27th, has come in for criticism. Martin Regg Cohn wrote a column in the Toronto Star on Thursday entitled “Green snub shows TV in the past,” which I highly recommend. His complaint? That Mike Schreiner, leader of the Ontario Green party, has been excluded from participation.
He writes: “To their credit, the Liberals and the New Democrats have previously agreed to invite the Greens into the studio. They also issued challenges to hold several televised debates. But Ontario’s TV networks are trapped in time… running their own shows without public accountability. This isn’t the first time they have conspired to exclude the Greens, but this time the exclusion is more egregious than ever.…. Today with Ford’s Tories vowing to dismantle cap and trade, and block any form of carbon pricing to reduce global warning, excluding the Greens from the discussion will deprive voters of an important voice.”
Cohn goes on to rebut the networks’ arguments against including the Greens: that they don’t yet have a seat, that they have no prospect of winning power, that adding a fourth leader will render the debate unwieldy. He quite rightly asks: “How is a political movement supposed to make headway without having a way to be heard?” He also points out that, in earlier federal elections, “the networks… invited the Western-based Reform party and the Bloc Québecois to participate, despite their narrow regional power bases,” and that these five-person debates were not particularly unwieldy.
He writes that “the Greens have consistently run candidates in every riding in Ontario, and attracted significant voter support in past elections, ranging as high as 8 per cent. That’s far more than any fringe party.” He adds that “there is one new factor that changes the calculation. Like the three biggest parties, the Greens receive a per-vote public subsidy, as part of the campaign finance reforms brought in before the election to curb the influence of corporate and union donors… it is manifestly unfair to deprive [the Greens] of the chance to attract voter support—and the financing that follows—during a debate. It is also anti-democratic to deny voters the chance to scrutinize the performance of any publicly subsidized party.”
I agree totally. Leadership debates are important. A well-functioning democracy (a rising concern in this age) depends on an informed electorate. Excluding the Greens is a betrayal of the professional responsibility and the trust that the media owes the public. To CityNews and the “network consortium,” I say: “Get with the times.”
I also want to know: Is it the networks who are responsible for excluding the Greens? Or have the PCs made it a condition of their participation? If so, that would be consistent with Doug Ford’s position that he will abolish the public subsidy for political parties. Whatever else one might say about the Ontario Liberals, they brought in Canada’s toughest political financing regulation, with the political party subsidy as the quid pro quo for curbing corporate and union donations. This will be the first Ontario election run under the new rules.
***** ADDENDUM: The second televised leaders’ debate will be on northern issues. It will be live streamed at CBC.ca/Toronto at 11:00 am today, Friday May 11th. Short notice but probably well worth watching.